Published On: Sat, Apr 28th, 2018

3 burning questions that will decide Game 7 of Pacers-Cavs

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The Indiana Pacers dismantled the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 on Friday night to force a deciding seventh game Sunday in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers were the heavy favorites coming into the series, they have the best player on the planet, and they’ll have home-court advantage. But the Pacers have been the better team for the vast majority of the series, and whatever fear LeBron James or the Cleveland crowd or the big stage might have instilled clearly hasn’t rattled them.

In Sunday’s do-or-die meeting, do you roll with the better team, or the one with the player who’s never lost a first-round series or a Game 7 at home? Here are three questions that will determine who goes home and who moves on.

Which Oladipo will the Pacers get?

Victor Oladipo‘s put on some absolutely electrifying performances against the Cavs, none bigger than his 28-point triple-double in Game 6. But sandwiched between that outing and his flamethrowing start to the series were three clunkers in which he shot a combined 12-of-50 from the field and 5-of-25 from 3-point range.

He still made an impact in those games thanks to his defense and playmaking; his mere presence incited so much reactive terror in Cleveland’s defense that his teammates got better looks as a result. But to win Game 7, Indiana probably needs him to be something closer to the elite scorer he was in Games 1, 2, and 6.

The Pacers employed some tactical tweaks that helped Oladipo get going Friday – namely, moving him off the ball more often to negate the aggressive traps the Cavs were throwing at him when he ran the pick-and-roll. He was effective working himself open off screens, and gashed the Cavs’ defense by attacking off the catch. Most importantly, he rediscovered his stroke, particularly off the dribble, and created open-court opportunities off steals and live-ball rebounds that he and the Pacers took advantage of time and again.

Speaking of which …

Can the Cavs keep the Pacers out of transition?

The Pacers are have been devastating in the open floor this year, while the Cavs had one of the league’s worst transition defenses in the regular season. For the first five games of the series, though, the Cavs mostly managed to keep the Pacers’ transition game under wraps.

Indiana scored no more than 18 fast-break points in any of those games, and got out on the break on 17.3 percent of their possessions, a middle-of-the-road mark. In Game 6, the Pacers made a more concerted effort to get out and run, and they flambeed the Cavs with 35 points on the break. That was partially a product of Cleveland’s sloppiness (the Cavs turned the ball over 15 times), but also a result of Indiana continually pushing the pace off misses – not just Oladipo but also Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, and Lance Stephenson.

Scoring has unexpectedly been a slog for both teams in this series, and the Pacers have gotten gummed up in the halfcourt. This was the first game in which they really exposed the Cavs’ shoddy defense, and they did it by using their superior speed and athleticism as often as possible. If the Cavs can’t take better care of the ball, avoid bad gambles on the offensive glass, and be more diligent about getting back, they’ll find themselves in a world of trouble.

Who else shows up for Cleveland?

At this point, you know what you’re going to get from LeBron. In this series, he’s been as good as his supporting cast has been bad – which is saying something. He’s given the Cavs 32.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.8 assists on 64.4 percent true shooting in 41 minutes a night. You can be sure he’ll give them all that and more in Game 7. But these six games have shown that, unlike any other first-round series in his career, a transcendent performance from James might not be enough. These Pacers are too tough and the Cavs’ role players too unreliable to just give him the benefit of the doubt.

The defense that had been the Cavs’ bugaboo all season long has held up surprisingly well in the playoffs, but they’ve been forsaken by the offense that was supposed to be their salvation. Their offensive rating has plunged 10 points from the regular season, and they rank 15th out of 16 playoff teams in offensive efficiency, ahead of only the patchwork Spurs. Their shooting has gone into the tank, their ball movement has dried up, and they’re taking a lifetime to get into their sets. They’ve become increasingly dependent on LeBron isolations, and he looks completely exhausted. They’ve gotten next to nothing from J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Jeff Green, or well, anyone else except Kyle Korver. They’ve started Jose Calderon the last three games because George Hill is dealing with back spasms.

Chances are that someone will step up Sunday – the rest of the team simply can’t continue to be this bad – but the “who” matters almost as much as the “if.” Kevin Love is a huge part of what the Cavs do offensively and he’s been a shell of himself, particularly since injuring his shooting thumb in Game 2. He’s shooting 32.4 percent from the field, averaging just 11 points a game (somehow still second on the team), and failing to even dent the Pacers’ defense in the post. He’s far from the worst offender, but his offensive failings have been magnified because the Pacers’ guards have targeted him relentlessly at the other end.

“He’s a huge part of our success, or our non-success,” James said after Love scored seven points on 3-of-10 shooting in Game 6. “We try to go to him, we want to go to him. Obviously, we can’t make the shots for him. He has to step up and knock those down. … If we want to have any success, either in Game 7 or if we move on to the next round, Kev has to be a big part of that.”

LeBron knows he can’t do it alone, even though he basically has so far. It’s been enough to get the Cavs to a Game 7. Can he get some help?

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